Vashon High's outgoing counselor to stick around part-time

Shirley Ferris recently took students to Jamaica as part of her Doors of Opportunity grant, a $2,000 award handed out each year. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Shirley Ferris recently took students to Jamaica as part of her Doors of Opportunity grant, a $2,000 award handed out each year.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Shirley Ferris’ office at Vashon High School was a hub of activity last week.

Students came in and out with questions about graduation, transferring high schools, a service trip to Guatemala. Other staff members use her bright office between a hallway and the main office as a thoroughfare, starting conversations on their way through.

But Ferris, a vivacious 63-year-old with blue eyes, dark curls and an upbeat demeanor, appeared anything but frazzled.

Cheery and enthusiastic, she greeted each student with a warmth that suggested she knew more about them than just their remaining graduation requirements. And on this particular day, as she contemplated the end of her 41 years in public education ­— 30 of them at Vashon High School — she said she realizes coming to work each day rejuvenates her, rather than exhausts her.

Little wonder then that this beloved high school counselor, last year’s winner of the Doors of Opportunity grant, plans to volunteer one day a week at the high school next year, working with the class of 2010, a group of kids she knows well.

“It is just energizing,” Ferris said of her work with young people. “There’s a lot of positive, youthful, resilient energy. You can just see the students change and grow, and I feel like I can change and grow with them.”

Ferris has been a guidance counselor at Vashon High School for 15 years; before that she was a teacher. Those who know her well say they’re moved by her determination to do what she can to help every student succeed, and many said she’ll be missed.

“Each one of our counselors is unique, but Shirley is a real gift,” said Principal Susan Hanson.

She said she most values three characteristics of Ferris’ personality, which she believes are indispensable in her work as a counselor.

“That combination of love, empathy and practicality — it really makes it possible for her to see the whole person and for her to help them become who they want to become, but she’s a realist too,” Hanson said. “She can really like a person but not be pleased with what they’re doing and then help them find a better way to conduct themselves.”

Hanson said Ferris recognizes students’ potential and helps them unlock it.

“She can see them as the individual: this one needs to be pushed to recognize her potential to go to college; this one needs to be pushed to be a mechanic,” she said. “She wants them to do their best and keep their doors open.”

Ferris is the main counselor for the classes of 2008 and 2010, and she’s been scrambling to help some seniors “get their ducks in a row” to graduate, and also telling the few who may not be able to make it happen that “commencement isn’t everything.”

Parents agreed that Ferris has made invaluable contributions to the high school community and to individual students’ lives.

Susan Keatts, mother of senior Spencer Caldwell, said Ferris is “poetic and high energy and gives more than 100 percent all the time for the kids.”

“Because of Shirley’s positive energy, as far as I can tell she’s just adored by the kids,” she said. “Those counselors do so much for so many kids — everything from college advising to emotional counseling to referring kids that don’t have food or shelter to the right people, and she’s kind of the queen of them all, and she’s going to be sorely missed.”

Parents Jenny Bredice and Cynthia Pringle, who both have sophomore daughters, said Ferris has been instrumental in their daughters’ years.

“Shirley held her responsible for the things that she did or did not do,” Bredice said of her daughter AnnaBeth. Ferris “makes sure to give praise for what the kids do right, and that really goes a long way for them.”

Bredice said it will be hard to find another counselor with Ferris’ dedication and personal commitment to the students of Vashon High.

“Those are tough shoes to fill. I would not want to be the person to follow in her footsteps,” Bredice said. “I’m really sad to see her go.”

Pringle said Ferris has a “generous” nature and has “been a real source of support” for her daughter Brooke, who left for Panama last week as part of the Amigos de las Americas program.

“Every time Brooke walked away from her, there was this feeling of ‘I’m valued, I’m important, I’m special,’” Pringle said. “She is somebody who you know is very grounded, and you know you’re going to get good answers from. They may be a little bit stern, but they’re good answers; you know you’re valued.”

Ferris began teaching at Vashon High School in 1976. She taught a variety of classes, but hit a roadblock 16 years into her career while grading essays on “The Scarlet Letter.” She simply ran out of comments, she said.

Coincidentally, an intensive institute for teachers to become counselors was taking place that same summer, 1992, at the University of Washington, which Ferris completed.

That fall, a part-time counseling position opened up at Vashon High School, and Ferris stepped into stride as an advisor to Vashon teens — a “cheerleader, teacher, parent, priestess, cop, cheerleader, coach, advisor, therapist,” she wrote in a reflection of her career a couple of years ago.

But her job isn’t without its difficult moments, its truly challenging days.

“I don’t think about the lows — the deaths of students, too many of them. Auto, drugs, murder, suicides, illness, it doesnt matter what it is, there’s too many of them,” Ferris said.

Ferris has seen it all, from addiction, crime and homelessness to pregnancy and engagements. And she’s helped many work through the tough times and celebrate the good times.

Ferris knew she wanted to dedicate her life to education from young adulthood.

“I’ve always loved people and ideas,” she said. “I feel like it’s got room for me to be serious and silly and wear lots of hats and learn and grow myself.”

((((She first taught at a university in Guatemala, while an undergraduate English student at the University of Washington.

“I could see that education can liberate people, can empower individuals, can help promote social justice,” she wrote in the retrospective of her career.

Ferris completed her undergraduate degree as well as a K-12 teaching certificate and began teaching the next year in an inner-city school in Trenton, N.J.

“I felt my education really started the first year I taught,” Ferris said.))))

Ferris said after the first time she visited Vashon, for a weekend student government retreat at a principal’s home in Paradise Valley, she knew she’d live here one day.

“I just felt like I had found my place,” she said.

When Ferris returned home to Ballard on Sunday evening, she told her family at the dinner table that she’d live on Vashon Island one day. She moved to the Island in 1971, on the first day of spring.

She said she appreciates the sense of community on the Island, and within the microcosm of the high school also.

“It’s hard to find a community in this day and age where people know each other and there’s a reciprocity, a give and take,” Ferris said. “We’re teaching and counseling our own kids, and our neighbors’ kids, and we see them at Thriftway and at the park and on the ferries. Each one of these kids is precious and of equal importance.”

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